When I first heard about the open lecture in town where a top art historian and architect were going to talk about design using math, I sensed a migraine coming on.
Why take a fun creative act — decorating — and ruin it with math? There is a reason I became a writer, and a deep love of math, or a talent with numbers for that matter, wasn’t one of them.
For example, somebody recently asked me if I knew how big the deficit was, and after thinking until my brain turned into a Gordian knot, I said, “In inches?”
But I was curious. Just what exactly makes proportions pleasing? Is there a cheap trick? I reserved two seats for the “Divine Proportions” talk hoping I would find someone nerdy enough to go with me, or at least elbow me to keep me from nodding off.
Straight away, the first speaker put up a slide about some guy named Fibonacci.
He was some math whiz born back when the earth was cooling who had nothing better to do than add sequential numbers together like this: 0+1 is 1. 1+1 is 2. 1+2 is 3. 2+3 is 5, and so on. I mean, really, what else was there to do in the 1200s before “I Love Lucy” was even on?
The sums of all these equations — 0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55,89,144 — is known in certain esoteric circles, in which I do not travel, as the Fibonacci sequence. At this point, I am scanning the room to see if anyone has put out appetizers. But I’m stuck, and my friend actually appears interested, or is faking it well.
Fibonacci apparently did this math either into infinity, or until he bored himself. Which came first, historians aren’t quite sure.
But what they do know is, apparently, once you get rolling with the Fibonacci numbers, and get past eight, something magical happens. When you divide the smaller number into its larger neighbor, you get, more often than not 1.618.
I’m not making this up: 34 into 55 is 1.618. Keep going, 144 into 233 is 1.618.
Some call this the Divine Proportion, or the Golden Mean. I call it flippin' freaky.
So what does this have to do with home design? By now my eyebrows are working so hard to find each other they have crocheted a little blanket.
Here’s what. (Stay with me. I didn’t sit through this for nothing.) Someone figured out that the relationship between those numbers not only made beautiful math, but also beautiful art and architecture.
That ratio of one to let’s call it 1.6, just to tick them off, is repeated over and over in art, design, architecture and — get ready, for this — nature because apparently God was in on all this, too.
The relationship between the smaller and the larger forms creates what is universally believed to be the most pleasing proportions.
They ratio is evident in Stonehenge, the Egyptian Pyramids and the Parthenon. Leonardo DaVinci and Michelangelo read Fibonacci, and must have thought he was onto something, because the golden ratio was a staple in their art.
In nature, we see the proportionally progressive spiral in a nautilus shell, a hurricane, and a galaxy. It shows up in the seed pattern in the center of a sunflower, the pattern on a pine cone, the curl of an ocean wave and the unfurling tip of a fern, and, frankly, so often it defies coincidence.
OK. So I was wowed. But that stopped when the experts began speculating whether our preference for these pleaseing propoptions was learned or innate. Do we like them because we’ve seen them around since the beginning of time, or because we were born liking them given our creator.
The discussion had now gotten to a level of theological navel-gazing level best reserved for those who really care whether the chicken or egg came first. I was out of there.
But I left caring about how to apply this math magic at home. Here’s how:
— Divide by three. When comparing two items that are perfectly proportioned, according to these rules, the larger one is almost two thirds larger than the smaller one. So an ideally proportioned table would be about two thirds longer than it is wide, or 45” x 72.”
— The 60-30-10 rule. Some interior designers have taken the Golden Mean and interpreted it informally into the 60-30-10 rule of design. Applied to color it works well: 60 percent of your room should be one background color (say, pale aqua), 30 percent should be a contrast color (dark pewter), and 10 an accent color (tangerine). A tiny splash of turquoise would be a nice touch.
— Five stars. The Golden Mean is evident in the pentagon, which, of course, is the star, the starfish, and the pattern seen in the lateral cut of an apple, and in the figure of the Vitruvian Man, where a five-pointed body with a head plus two arm and two legs fits in a circle. The five pointed shape factors heavily — and pleasantly — into design.
— Be odd. The best designs aren’t static. They show progression. This is partly why three or five flowers in a vase look better than two or four. The odd number creates a hierarchy.
— Apply spiral math. Accessories on a mantle or coffee table should spiral down in a progression to an arc of interesting objects to look at.
And that is all the math for me for at least 1.618 decades.
Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins”. Contact her through www.marnijameson.com.